BODY ARMOR -What do you need to know?

In the world of today, body armor is something that I feel ALL Security Officers, Bail Enforcement Agents, and LEO’s should be wearing on a regular basis. This world can be a very scary place for those of us in these professions. With the recent terror incidents – and the threats of many more – we need to be constantly vigilant for more threats from places where we might not have customarily expected them. Good body armor will offer you a degree of protection if the bad guy sees you before you see him, or if you just get caught in a bad situation.

Most body armor is worn in the form of a bullet-resistant vest. You will note that I do not call it a bullet-proof vest. Any item of body armor is designed to stop a given level of ballistic threat – a technical way of saying that it is meant to protect you from certain calibers and types of arms. Body armor that you can tolerate wearing every day will NOT protect you from everything out there.

There are several different LEVELS of body armor protection. Each level corresponds to the minimum ballistic threat that the armor will protect you from. Manufacturers are free to make their armor better, but it must meet the minimum standard for the level they claim it to meet.

The levels are defined by the NIJ [National Institute Of Justice], National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center [NLECTC].. You can access their Website via the link at the bottom of the page. At the time this article was written (2002), the current standard was called NIJ Standard STD-0101.04, Ballistic Resistance Of Personal Body Armor. It defined the levels of protection as follows…

Level 1 – Forget it. It is intended to protect against a .22LR fired from something like a Ruger MKII standard or a little .380 ACP, but that’s about it. Be aware that there are armored car companies that supply this for their people. It does little or nothing.

Level 2A – This is rated for protection against some 9mm and .40 S&W. Vests meeting this standard will protect you from a

9mm 124 gr. FMJ RN @ 1090 FPS

.40 S&W 180 gr. FMJ @ 1025 FPS

Level 2 – This is rated for 9mm and .357 Mag. Vests meeting this standard will protect you from a

9mm 124 gr. FMJ RN @ 1175 FPS

.357 Mag 158 gr. JSP @ 1400 FPS

Level 3A – This is the really good stuff, rated for high-power 9mm and .44 Mag. Vests meeting this standard will protect you from a

9mm 124 gr. FMJ RN @ 1400 FPS

.44 Mag 240 gr. SJHP @ 1400 FPS

Level 3A is considered to be the best you can get that is capable of being concealed under your clothing. In this case, concealment does NOT mean that it can not be detected, it just means that it is thin enough to allow a uniform shirt to be placed over it. If you have ever had interaction with a police officer wearing body armor, you know that it can be fairly easy to spot.

Levels 3 and beyond are in the world of tactical armor which must be worn over clothing.

Level 3 – This offers protection against

308 Winchester [7.62mm] 150 gr. FMJ @ 2750 FPS

Level 4 – This is really heavy stuff and offers protection against

30-06 166 gr. AP [Armor Piercing] @ 2850 FPS

Higher degrees of protection come at a price – they sacrifice comfort for that protection. In order to provide better protection, the vest becomes thicker and/or less flexible. Comfort comes at a reduced protection level. It also brings one other danger – rear surface deformation.

Armor that is thinner and more flexible will transmit more energy into your body. The bullet will be prevented from entering your body and doing the damage it was intended to – but it does cause a dent in the armor. The back of that dent hits your body. It causes blunt impact trauma.

That blunt impact trauma can cause things like broken ribs with possible internal bleeding, serious bruising, and getting the wind knocked out of you. Armor that is stiffer and less flexible will allow lesser amounts of such damage to your body.

Most armor also accepts something called a Trauma Plate. This is extra armor that can be inserted to protect the kill zone – the area in the center of your chest. Some trauma plates are hard steel or ceramic that can protect against rifles, others are just an insert with more of the same armor as the vest is made of.

Selecting a vest can be a little challenging since it is not usually easy to go try them on. You usually have to figure out what level of protection you need, and then find armor that suits your fancy and place an order. Depending on the manufacturer, delivery can be anywhere from 1 to 8 weeks. Start with the level of protection you want, and go from there.

Since the NIJ standards cover the MINIMUM protection for each level, many manufacturers vests will exceed the minimum. Some manufacturers also make different comfort levels in each level of armor. For example, a manufacturer will a given model of armor in 2A, 2, and 3A. They will also have two or more ballistic panel packages in each level – one thick and heavy, one thinner and more comfortable, and one as thin as possible to still provide the required protection but be as comfortable as possible. The higher the protection, the more expensive the armor. The thinner the armor in the higher threat level – and therefore more comfortable – the more expensive it will be. You can expect to spend $500 to $1500 for good body armor, depending on the discounts given by the retailer.

When considering the armor for you to wear, you will want to make a lot of comparisons and talk to some of the LEO’s in your community, or the police stores in your area [such as Skaggs] to see what officers are wearing in your area. The general recommendation you will usually hear is to buy a vest that will protect you from your own firearm, since many LEO’s are killed when their own gun is taken from them by a hostile individual.

However, you also need to take into account the kinds of duty you will be working. If your duty takes you to the streets or areas where the local gang bangers or dealers hang out, you need to take into account the firepower they are known to be packing.

If you are working an armored car detail with a lot of valuable and easily negotiable items, you may want to go for more protection since a determined individual will most likely be loaded for bear. You also need to take into account that most people think that ALL armored cars carry hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars at a time – even though reality is always much less. Dress accordingly.

Keep in mind that just because you may be an unarmed guard in a mall, that uniform and badge make you a target if the situation goes bad. Just because you may not carry a gun on duty, that doesn’t mean that the bad guys will spare you. He will usually see the badge and act accordingly.

Police in this area wear the entire range from 2A, 2, clear up to 3A. One local armored car company only provides level 2A for their people, but most of them get their own 2 or 3A armor. Remember that you are free to buy your own, and owning yours means that you can get whatever works best for you. You can also easily take it from job to job.

When you go to buy armor, your will find that you are actually looking at two different things – the CARRIER and the BALLISTIC PANELS. The ballistic panels are the actual bullet-resistant parts. They are often made of multiple layers of Kevlar, Spectra, and other bullet-resistant materials. You will find that you get two panels – front and rear. The sizing is usually based on your widest torso measurement for width. Petite, standard, and tall lengths are usually also available. You want to make sure that the armor covers all of the vital areas on your torso.

The ballistic panels are then placed into the carrier, which is what you wear. Carriers are available in different colors to work under whatever clothing you wear. Some carriers claim to offer a superior ability to hold the armor in place after you have been shot – to protect you equally as well from subsequent shots.

There are designs for both men and women – due to the obvious differences caused by the female anatomy [or differences in the male anatomy, depending on your point of view]. The front and back units are usually secured together with adjustable velcro straps. Ideally, you want to make sure that you get a vest large enough so that you can overlap the front and back panels at the sides. You don’t want any gap between the front and back, as that gap area would be unprotected. They usually come in even sizes.

Keep also in mind that wearing body armor might make you adjust how you shoot. The Weaver stance has one side more toward the threat. Stiffer body armor offers resistance to this stance. It also places the arm hole closer to the threat. You may find the isosceles stance to be a better option. It keeps the solid part of the armor toward the threat, and it offers less resistance to the required pose.

Personally, when I looked at vests some time ago I settled on Safariland ZERO-G Level 3A Gold. I liked the armor and the fit, and I feel that they make a really good product. Their level 3A Gold is rated to protect against the following…

9mm 124 gr. FMJ @ 1693 FPS [293 FPS faster than the minimum for level 3A]

.44 Mag 240 gr. SJHP @ 1616 [216 FPS faster than the minimum for level 3A]

Safariland offers several different ballistic packages in each NIJ armor level. The differences are in the materials and comfort of the vest – the thinner and lighter the materials, the more expensive the vest.

Safariland ZERO-G Level 3A Gold armor is .22″ thick, and has an areal weight of .93 lbs. The areal weight of a vest is the weight of 1 sq. ft. of the ballistic panel material. The MSRP for this armor is $1075.

In comparison, their ZERO-G Level 3A Silver is .34″ thick, has an areal weight of 1.31 lbs and carries an MSRP of $900. Their ZERO-G Level 3A Bronze is .41″ thick, has an areal weight of 1.56 lbs, and carries an MSRP of only $750.

Some of the reasons I like their ZERO-G Level 3A Gold armor so much are the reduced thickness while not being flimsy, the carrier is easy to put on and adjust, and the armor itself exceeds the minimum for level 3A protection. It is also lightweight for a big guy like me, and it is made by Safariland – a leader in the production of equipment for law enforcement and security.

I have never had to test it in actual use, but when this vest is due for a replacement – manufacturers generally recommend that you replace the armor after 5 years of wear – I think I will take it out and test it on the range. Don’t worry, it will be a wooden dummy wearing it.

In addition to protection from bullets, heavier armor can offer some protection from knife attacks, and even from shrapnel and debris from explosions. It can also help spread out the effects of other blunt impacts to your body such as impacts from pipes and baseball bats. It is also said that it can be helpful in automobile accidents. I have also tested my armor against stun guns, and Safariland ZERO-G Level 3A Gold offered complete protection from them – yet another advantage of wearing body armor.

You may be asking why I selected Level 3A armor. That’s a good question. The way I look at it is this.

I am good at what I do, and I am very careful. I follow proper procedures for cornering, building searches, and subject contact and interview. But no one is perfect. There are also some very bad people out there – something which really hit home when my cousin, the Police Chief in a relatively quiet, small town in Utah, was killed in the line of duty by a person who has given himself completely to the forces of darkness. This individual killed him cheerfully and did it knowing who he was killing. There are some people out there with no internal moral compass. I may run into someone like that someday.

I love my wife and I enjoy my family time. I want to go home to them at the end of my shift. If I am ever shot, I don’t want my wife to get a call to come identify my body at the morgue. I want to be able to call her and tell her everything is OK and that I will be home in a little while after I get an X-Ray of my ribcage. I accept that I may have some bruises, maybe even a broken rib or two. But I will be alive and will go home at the end of the day.

There is also another, practical way to look at it. What’s the cost to your enjoyment of life if you end up needing a liver, kidney, or heart transplant after being shot – versus the cost of a ballistic vest which would prevent that need if you were to be shot while on duty?

Think not only of the initial medical costs, but the costs of anti-rejection drugs, being tied to those anti-rejection drugs for the rest of your life, the recovery time, the limits on what you may be able to do in the future, the trauma to your loved ones both during and after your recovery, and the psychological effects on your own recovery. While it IS a big expense up front – especially to someone on a guard salary – it is WELL worth it.

You don’t just wear it for yourself, you wear it for your loved ones too. I encourage all of you to get good body armor, and wear it whenever you are on duty.

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